Revitalizing Interest In Track-and-Trace Capabilities

Technology is paving the way for standardization within the food industry.


Of course, the primary goal for the food industry is contamination prevention and delivering safe food to consumers. This means utilizing HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), as well as FDA and USDA inspections, says Jeanne Iglesias, senior director of supply chain and technology for Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). In the rare instances where prevention fails, recall will involve notification, product removal and product destruction. Track and trace is the ability to locate goods either upstream or downstream in the food supply chain.

Iglesias adds that track-and-trace technology is still evolving, but that the barcode infrastructure is still prevalent within the CPG industry, whether that means using UPC or GTIN identification. “The barcode infrastructure is a tried-and-true mechanism to capture data from your suppliers at the batch-lot level, enabling traceability throughout the supply chain because it is interoperable and everyone along the chain can read and scan barcode,” she says.

Although RFID is not yet prevalent, its enhanced data-capture capabilities are without doubt. Implementation hurdles in the industry involve cost and data quality challenges in certain environments. “We are challenging RFID providers to get us over those hurdles and make RFID applicable across the board,” Iglesias says, adding that some GMA members are involved in pilot testing with retailer partners.

On the other hand, European and other countries overseas use RFID aggressively in the food industry. So why isn’t it used as much here in the United States? Arens of GS1 says the aggressive use overseas could be driven by government activity or funding. He adds that there is a fair amount of RFID use in the U.S. produce industry.

Barcode and RFID are the primary technologies used in the food industry, say some experts. Lora Cecere, vice president for consumer products at AMR Research in Boston, offers a broader perspective. She explains the technologies include warehouse management systems that track units in a warehouse; multi-tier quality systems that track product lot codes; and manufacturing master data systems tracking items through manufacturing and transformation processes by tracking lot codes through manufacturing execution systems (MES).

Currently, beef, pork and poultry industries are examining PTI activity in the produce industry. “We expect those industries to be on a similar path soon,” says Arens. He adds that once the spinach, cantaloupe and tomato recall hit, the produce industry wanted to control its own destiny and took the lead in designing and planning this traceability initiative, rather than waiting for the government to tell it what to do.

The PTI will allow the industry to narrow down suspected products within the supply chain. “Our GS1 standards are helping companies move toward supplier identification at the case level,” explains Arens. “With product and brand identification, a recall situation can be limited to the affected brand only so the whole category doesn’t have to be destroyed, as in the tomato and pepper incident last year where the industry destroyed between $250 million to $300 million worth of products.”

GS1-128 can identify the product, its lot number, the location from which it was shipped, the use-by date, sell-by date and other data. “This symbology is more flexible and can hold more data than the UPC, which is a fixed format that only identifies the product,” explains Arens. “So the trend here is to move from the theme of commodity identification to specific identification of the grower, packer and brand owner.”

ILLUMINATING THE FOOD CHAIN

What exactly is the architecture of the data environment in which track-and-trace technologies perform? Generally, data is collected through supply chain execution systems and manufacturing execution systems. Some technology providers also use Web-based applications.

As Matthew Littlefield says, “It is very difficult to cast out nets properly to capture contaminated food once a non-conformance event is initiated.” Littlefield is senior research analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group. One metric of interest to Aberdeen, monitored in several studies, was track-and-trace response time. “From our perspective, the top performers improving overall food safety are the companies who integrate the various data sources coming from food processing, warehouse management and distribution to the customer.”

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